Research-led web site design

October 4, 2014

Web design, the process of branding a website goes way beyond what we could call as “applying curles to websites”.

In the last two decades we can notice how websites went from having just an informative function to being used as promotional channels, and this is due expecially to the growth of the numbers of users that now have access to the internet and the evolution of the devices that allow us to access it.

As a promotional channel the web gained so much importance that marketers and web designers work hand by hand, and in most cases the web is the landing point of a marketing campaing where you actually get users, which are potential customers, to interact directly with the brand.

This is why the research and planning phase of a web project has become the most important for the success of the project.

New terms like Landing page, above the fold, convertions were now introduced and different professional figures started working on the web and took on what was the Web Master’s job back in the 90’s, so when we talk about building websites the people involved are UX designers, Web/Graphic Designers, SEO experts, Copywriters, and Front-end developers (in the case of web applications we could also find a back-end developer).

If we were to organize the main phases of this process by priority the list would look like this:

  1. User Research
  2. User Experience Design
  3. Content Organization
  4. Web/Graphic Design and development
  5. Analitycs and iterations.

As we can se only one of these phases require actual “artistic” work, this is because the main goal of research-led web design isn’t to look pretty but to increase the number of conversions. Let’s not get this wrong, this doesn’t mean that the graphic part of the site will be neglected, but it will be based on the decisions taken in the previous phases.

User Research: defining our target users and our competitors

On the web we usually think about the companies on the first page of Google search results as our competitors. This is not completely wrong, but even if on the web we should consider the top 5-10 companies by market share in our vertical as our competition.

When it comes to doing user research it start getting more complicated.  We’re talking about ethography, the study of humans in their culture.

According to Erika Hall in “Just enough research”:

“We want to learn about our target users as people existing in a cultural context. We want to understand how they behave and why. […] For you to design something that appeals to real people and reflects their priorities, you’ll need to talk or observe representative users in their regular enviroment. This reduces your risk of making bad assumptions based on your own experiences or subjective preferences.”.

User Experience design and Usability

User experience and usability are two different things which depend from each other.

The web community is now starting to realise that usability alone is not enough to gain the costumer loyalty. Human Factors International decided to set up some guidelines to help improve the development of user experience and coined the term “PET Design” which stands for:

  • Persuasion: Communication intended to induce belief or action, guiding someone towards the adoption of an idea, attitude or action.
  • Emotion: Physiological state of arousal. Triggered by beliefs about something. Has cognitive, physiological, social and behavioural
  • Trust: to have faith or confidence in something or someone.

So basically we need to ensure that users not only can perform tasks (usability), but they feel compelled to do so.

A study conducted by Jacob Nielsen through eye-tracking visualisations also revealed that users tend to read web pages in F-shaped pattern, so we should be able to take advantage of that and organise websites layout based on the focus areas.


There’s also been a debate over the years about how many clicks we expect users to do to get where they want without getting frustrated, some sites also have design rules specifying the number of clicks, which is usually between 3 and 5.

If applied, this rule allows us to create a better site map and organise information in the most logical way increasing the overall user experience of the website.

But this is’t a general rule, as Krug says, “it’s safe to say that users don’t mind a lot of clicks as long as each click is painless and they have confidence that they’re on the right track.

Content organisation

When writing content for a website we need to keep in mind that web users have a short attention span and don’t usually read the content of a website in their entirety. A study made by Ziming Liu in 2005 concluded that the screen-based reading behaviour is characterised by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively.

This means that long pages full of text are just going to be ignored by the user, that’s why we need to focus on the essential and communicate more directly. All websites should adopt the seventeenth rule by E.B White:

“[…] a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines […]”.

At the end of these steps we should have the elements neccessary to design the website.

The only research related phase remaining will be the analitycs and iteration, which happens in the post-launch phase. This phase requires the use of different type tracking software that allowes to see the actual behaviour of the users and optimize their experience.

By following all of these steps we would have a site that convert visitors into happy customers that would likely come back on the site and buy again.

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